We are a bridge state. By that I mean that we are the connecter between the large population centers on either side of us. We can’t compete in a lot of spheres because we don’t have the people or the water or the growing season. But what we do have is our very presence; the 400 miles of space we occupy. Every trinket made in China that gets sold in Chicago or Memphis goes through us. All you need do is watch the train tracks and the interstate for a few hours and you will quickly understand just how much “stuff” goes by us. That reality already garners us some bonus funds. We get a lot of money to keep our Federal highways in good repair, more than we can contribute.
I think that a little judicious blackmail could well help us get even more. If our Congressional delegates reminded their colleagues from California and Washington and Illinois and Minnesota just how important our transportation infrastructure is to their workers, and how much those voters would benefit from even better and more roads... maybe we could get a lane added in each direction on I-80. And maybe we could get the road from here to Casper expanded to four lanes. There is too much traffic, too many people not paying attention, going too fast, to leave it alone for decades. I’ve sat at the Independence Rock rest area for hours before coming home the back way through Seminoe after a vehicle accident. And the week before that there was another crash in the same area, with the road closed for hours. The crashes, too many of them deadly, seem to be happening with greater regularity.
If our neighbors are willing to pay us for the space we occupy, encouraging them to do so makes our commutes safer and less stressful, and we get some decent paying construction jobs out of the deal, it seems like a win-win to me. Road construction is a season here, so we might as well make it as good as we possibly can. There’s nothing like the sight of orange traffic cones to gladden the heart of an old construction bum.
I’m talking about trying to get more money from our strengths because what has been our backbone seems to be failing us. Another 700 coal mining jobs are in jeopardy, maybe gone permanently already. And we as a state have even bigger worries than 700 unemployed miners, their futures and homes and livelihoods. Our schools are funded primarily by coal revenue. If we are looking at a third less coal being exported, how does that affect the state’s budgets? Taxes on transportation will take a major hit as well. It seems unlikely that the markets for the coal that won’t be mined and shipped will last long. Coal is losing out to alternatives, mostly natural gas. Our legislators are meeting this week to talk about revenue streams, which means various taxes. I hope they take their jobs a lot more seriously now than they have the past few years. Kicking the can down the road and hoping for the best is not a good plan; it hasn’t been for some years.
As long as we are dreaming of a better world, maybe Senator Hicks (R-Baggs) and Senator Scott (R-Casper) will stop opposing Medicaid expansion. We as a state have lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars, our most needy citizens have lost out on necessary medical care, and our hospitals have been denied a steady revenue stream that would help them in planning, staff recruiting and paying to keep the lights on. There are only a few states that continue to oppose expansion, and most of the arguments given for their opposition are specious. Do a little research and see what you think. Then talk to your representatives. Without some pressure from us – the voters – nothing will change at the legislature. And that is not a good thing.
I remember the bumper stickers from a few years ago, “Please Lord, if you’ll just give me one more boom I promise not to waste it.” The problem with booms is that there’s always a bust lurking. That’s true for states and for towns and for people. When you tie yourself to that life there’s going to be times when you have an eighty thousand-dollar diesel pickup and a fifty-foot travel trailer to go hunting in. But if you are not very careful two years later you’ll be driving a twenty-year-old truck with flapping fenders and camping in a patched up canvas tent. On a larger scale that has been the State of Wyoming. Some years everything is possible. We’re building new schools, fixing the Capitol Building, expanding prisons. Several years ago the State was so broke that it was only the taxes a rich woman in Jackson bequeathed with her death that allowed Wyoming to pay its bills. After that episode the State’s leadership got serious and fixed things. The tax structure that has served us quite well for several decades now is, to a greater extent than generally acknowledged, tied to our boom and bust economy. Without a serious review and major revamping, we could find ourselves in uncomfortable territory again. I know a lot of our legislators have serious issues with taxes. Too bad. Get over yourselves and do your job.
Dennis Jones is a retired resident of Rawlins. He worked construction for 15 years and was an employee with the Wyoming State Penitentiary for 25. He grew up in Fremont County, and he graduated from the University of Wyoming in 1972.